A cutting-edge Chinese newspaper that has been at the heart of a row over political censorship in recent days was back on sale on Thursday, as propaganda officials and senior editors appeared to have agreed on a deal following several days of strikes and protests.
The Southern Weekend newspaper, known in Chinese as Nanfang Zhoumo, was published as normal on Thursday, although some editions were incomplete, and some outlets received their copies late.
"It is definitely coming out on time," said an employee who answered the phone at the paper's Guangzhou-based headquarters on Thursday. "I don't have anything to report; everything is normal."
Hong Kong media reported that a small number of protesters were escorted away from the paper's offices by police, following a shouting match between anti-censorship protesters and left-wing activists.
The full edition of the paper appeared in Beijing, with a cover story on the aftermath of a fire in an orphanage in the central province of Henan, while some sellers in Guangzhou told Reuters they hadn't received it yet.
Two sections of the paper -- dealing with land issues and reform -- were missing from the version on sale in Shanghai, however.
Journalists at the paper, which stands out for its daring and in-depth reporting amid China's highly controlled media landscape, announced a strike earlier this week via social media in protest at heavy-handed censorship of the paper's New Year editorial.
Officials on Wednesday brokered a deal that promised that most staff wouldn't be punished over the incident.
However, police detained and questioned a number of activists who had supported the journalists' campaign, both online and in person.
An activist identified by his online nickname Xiao Bao said he had taken a walk with some friends near the paper's offices on Thursday, and had noticed an increased security presence in the area.
"They are checking the ID cards of anyone who walks past there from any direction," he said. "No-one is being allowed to stop there."
Under the terms of the deal, reported by major Western news outlets, propaganda officials will refrain from rewriting articles before they appear in the newspaper.
However, there is little sign that the ruling Communist Party's powerful but secretive central propaganda department will relax media controls.
The department this week ordered newspapers across the country to reprint an editorial that ran on Monday in the Party-linked Global Times tabloid newspaper, titled "Freedom of the Press Must Have Limits," journalists said.
"The editorial freedom of the press must have limits," the editorial said. "There are still things which Chinese media cannot do at present."
It said the media was unable to attack one-party rule "because society has not developed sufficiently."
"The media cannot directly attack the nation's basic political system, because the basic political system is set out by the Constitution," it said.
'Move with the times'
The Southern Weekend hit back on Thursday by reprinting a Monday editorial from the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily that called for the Party's methods of controlling the media to "move with the times".
In its interpretation of the People's Daily editorial, the Southern Weekend said the remaining reforms that need to be done are as difficult as "gnawing at bones".
"They need the protection and support of a moderate, rational and constructive media," the paper said.
The Southern newspaper group conflict had also spread to the popular Beijing News, with some reports online saying that publisher Dai Zigeng had resigned on Wednesday.
However, RFA was unable to verify the reports independently.
A Beijing-based veteran journalist, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Sun, said it was highly unusual for newspapers across the country to be required to print a single editorial.
He said the move was likely an attempt by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping and premier-to-be Li Keqiang to stamp their authority on the media ahead of their swearing in at parliamentary sessions in March.
"There's no way that [the Guangdong Party secretary] could make this decision," Sun said. "The word in Beijing is that Xi and Li are trying as hard as they can to forge a new image since they got their jobs."
A veteran media professional surnamed Jia said the measure could have only come from the top, and was the first time such a decision had been taken since the political campaigns of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
"Such a thing hasn't happened in 30 years," he said. "Media across the whole country were forced to run a piece written by a paper...that is a subsidiary of the People's Daily's international department."
Guangdong-based journalist Zhu Jianguo said the technique had been used frequently during the Mao era to denounce his political opponents.
"Things are going backwards," Zhu said. "It feels like winter for Chinese reformers now; there is a clash between reformers and those who want to regress."
"The Southern Weekend incident was definitely not just about a clash between the central propaganda department and the Guangdong provincial government, or the Southern Weekend," Zhu said.
"This is a clash between ideologies at the highest level; this has been a victory for the left, and it doesn't matter how liberal the [new provincial Party secretary] is, they will be stamping out the reformers and stamping out the Southern newspaper group," he said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to comment on the incident. "I don't understand the situation, and I don't think the foreign ministry should get involved in domestic affairs," he told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.